Body ownership is semantic gobbledygook.


This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.

Central to the pro-choice rhetoric is the idea that the woman “owns her own body,” and that this renders the assertion that the woman has a “right to choose” indisputable. In this view, the fetus is a parasite in the woman’s body, with no rights at all unless it becomes viable, and so it’s justifiable to kill them until they become viable.

I have already quoted an example of this argument:

You cannot have two entities with equal rights occupying one body. One will automatically have veto power over the other – and thus they don’t have equal rights. In the case of a pregnant woman, giving a “right to life” to the potential person in the womb automatically cancels out the mother’s right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

After birth, on the other hand, the potential person no longer occupies the same body as the mother, and thus, giving it full human rights causes no interference with another’s right to control her body.

The anti-abortion response seems to be either to outright ignore the argument, or to posit that the fetus also owns its own body, and that the woman therefore has no more right to interfere with the fetus’ existence than she does to attack anyone else’s existence. They deploy a great deal of emotional rhetoric to get you to sympathize with the fetus. To further prove this, they show you pictures of fetuses at various stages of growth and basically go “see? see? What’d I tell you? Didn’t I tell you they were HUMAN? These are HUMAN LIVES! Look how human they look!”

This argument has two major flaws. For one, it assumes the false premise of self-ownership, which most of this entry will discuss. But it also suffers from the flaw of positing a fetal ownership that simply cannot exist. The fetus is completely incapable of voluntary movement. So how can this supposed ownership possibly express itself? This is like saying that I can own some non-material ghost, but that, being non-material, I have no way of interacting with it whatsoever; how is a form of ownership that cannot possibly be expressed in any way whatsoever not meaningless?

I’ve said before that the concept of the woman “owning her own body” was nonsense. I’ve already discussed in detail how the concept of self-ownership is meaningless (here and here). To explain this simply, the concept of owning a body (by which I imply a living body containing consciousness) is nonsense because bodies are not objects, they are moral agents that own objects. “A woman owns her body” cannot be a relation of ownership, as ownership presupposes an owner and an owned which are in relation to each other.

The fact that this relation is impossible is illustrated by the fact that most people cannot accept the idea of people being rented, bought, sold, or murdered. Yet these are all rights inherent to property. This tells us that people probably don’t literally believe in self-ownership. And if you ask people about it, they will usually reply that self-ownership is a metaphor for liberty (being free from constraints) or some similar concept.

But if this is the case, then the argument that “the woman owns her body, therefore she is free to do what she wants with it” becomes a tautology: “the woman is free to do what she wants, therefore the woman is free to do what she wants.” And if the argument is tautological, then it proves nothing at all, certainly not the validity of abortion anyway.

So the question becomes, can we do whatever we want with our bodies? The answer is obviously no. We can’t go around punching people, even though the arm and the fist are part of us. As Zechariah Chafee famously said, “[y]our right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” This is as it should be (although in practice, swinging your arm just short of someone’s nose might be construed as a threat). So there is a little bit of truth in the anti-abortion argument, insofar as, if we recognize the fetus as a moral agent, we must therefore ban the woman from affecting it. The flaw here is that, as in the case of ownership, the fetus cannot actually express any moral choice, so it cannot be called a moral agent in any meaningful way.

Even given that absence of moral agency, we certainly cannot give the pregnant woman the right to do whatever she wants with the fetus, because the fetus does have rights by virtue of being a future person. This issue is sidestepped in the case of abortion because an abortion ensures there will be no such future person. But in the case of a pregnant woman taking cocaine, we certainly should resolutely deny that “the woman owns her body, therefore she has the right to choose to take cocaine or not,” for her actions are an attack on the rights of the future person.

I have often discussed on this blog how voluntaryism is really an evil ideology because it detaches morality from the rational evaluation of facts and reduces it to personal opinion. This is what the pro-choice position seems oriented to do as well. By making abortion a matter of choice and of “following one’s conscience,” it opens itself to the criticisms expressed by Pakaluk in some of his questions regarding the desire to follow one’s conscience and how this influences how we see our own actions. I could be wrong, but based on the emphasis on liberty, I don’t really see how pro-choice advocates can convincingly say that pro-choice individuals are free to follow their conscience but anti-abortion individuals are not, apart from bringing in matters of fact and pushing away choice and conscience to that extent.

If abortion or childbirth are ethically wrong and an assault on human rights, then choice and conscience have to be thrown out the window, in the same way that we don’t allow for choice or conscience as an excuse for murder. If abortion is a crime, then the whole ownership issue is irrelevant, too; if abortion is not a crime, then people’s conscience is of no ethical importance (although of course it still has a great deal of personal importance).

Continuing on the ownership issue, since the fetus cannot survive without the umbilical cord and the placenta, but the woman can, it would seem that, based on needs alone, the fetus has a much better claim to ownership than the woman does. So if I accepted ownership in this case, I would argue for fetal ownership. But this is irrelevant either way, because I do not accept any self-ownership claim in the name of the fetus either. It’s not “its body” any more than it’s “part of the woman’s body.” So the anti-abortion position can’t get any mileage out of debunking self-ownership.

The anti-abortion v pro-choice debate has conditioned us to see this debate as being fetuses (or more exactly, people who claim to speak for the fetus) v women. It is entirely possible, however, to reject both the fetus’ claim and the woman’s claim. Abortion cannot be justified by such an argument, and it doesn’t need to be.

This may be more of an esthetic point, but the idea that the fetus is a parasite strikes me as unnecessarily cruel, as well as technically false. The fetus is not of a different species than its host, and it does not invade the host from the outside. A fetus is a stage of development within a mammalian species, not a parasite. So that argument fails as well. Surely the fact that the fetus is a potential person makes its removal different than, say, the removal of an appendix (being pro-abortion, I consider that to be a good difference; others may disagree).

To end on the quote about “two entities with equal rights occupying one body”: I see no theoretical problem with such a situation. After all, grown human beings share resources on a finite planet and, while they are astonishingly bad at managing said resources, we don’t think that only one person on the planet should have rights. While some of our supposed rights are rivalrous (such as the “right to property”), others are not. The right to life, insofar as it concerns persons not getting killed, is not only not rivalrous, but is cooperative, since protection from murder is generally a public good. Likewise with the woman and the fetus: generally, threats to the fetus’ life are also threats to the woman’s life, although there are exceptions.

So the claim that the fetus’ right to life (if such exists) crowds out the woman’s right to life is a counter-intuitive claim, to say the least. How do we determine who or what has the “veto power”?

5 thoughts on “Body ownership is semantic gobbledygook.

  1. […] The humbug of “reproductive rights”… (02/07) The humbug of the fetal right to life… (02/13) Body ownership is semantic gobbledygook. (02/19) Do women have a right to make medical decisions on abortion? (02/25) Is abortion murder?: a […]

  2. […] Body ownership is semantic gobbledygook. (francoistremblay.wordpress.com) […]

  3. The pain of childbirth « Cubik's Rube February 25, 2012 at 04:16

    […] latest post in one explanatory series focuses on “body ownership”, and while I’m still not finding the approach of this […]

  4. cody.W March 9, 2012 at 13:24

    i’d like to point out the obvious fact that the concept of free will has in general been distorted by the modern societal norms. As i see it there is no point were you can not swing your arms the ideal that it’s wrong to hit someone is global but we’re getting morality and reality mixed in the same bowl. A person is capable of anything that is possible, abortion is literally no different then punching someone in the face, if you remove society’s norms and law from it, then you see that abortion really is the mother’s choice, as it would be someone’s choice to punch someone in the face. I honestly think abortion is wrong when it comes to “rights” and the such but really it’s not up to me, it’s up to the mother.

    • Francois Tremblay March 9, 2012 at 19:53

      “A person is capable of anything that is possible”

      It is possible to be a Christian, but I am not capable of being one.

      “abortion is literally no different then punching someone in the face, if you remove society’s norms and law from it, then you see that abortion really is the mother’s choice”

      Are you making a voluntaryist argument, or saying that we can’t do anything about it, or what? Your argument is vague.

      “I honestly think abortion is wrong when it comes to “rights” and the such but really it’s not up to me, it’s up to the mother.”

      So you think assault should be permitted to flourish as well? Or that people should be allowed to spread diseases without being quarantined or vaccined? Do you have no conception of common good at all?

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